The Pandemic of Pornography


By Wasim Kakroo & Aamir Bashir

WE all pass through different stages of development throughout life from childhood to adulthood and so on. Every developmental stage is characterized by different physical or psychological changes and every stage of development has its own challenges.

Here we are exclusively focusing on the adolescent population. Adolescence is the age of change and a transitional phase from childhood to adulthood. It is a vulnerable time when children might develop unhealthy habits that grow into problems in their adult life. Behavioral issues of adolescence, which are quite common, also crop up during this time, making it impossible for parents to reach out to their teenagers.

Common challenges to adolescents include physical, emotional changes, peer pressure, need for independence and autonomy, career challenges, psychological issues and so on. It is rightly called as the, “period of storm and stress”.

One of the most important issues that arise at this age is addiction. As per studies, most addictive behaviors start in adolescence when there is a high incidence of experimenting with different things. One of such addictive behaviors is porn addiction.

An addiction is more than just an intense interest in something. It is a medical condition that changes the brain and the body and causes the person to feel compelled to continue acting in a certain way, even when doing so may cause harm.

Porn addiction refers to uncontrolled compulsion to watch porn and concurrent use of pornographic material for pleasure seeking or dealing with distress despite negative consequences to one’s physical, mental and social well being.

According to one report, almost half (46%) of young people aged 12 to 16 are addicted to their smart phones and mostly surf porn websites (digital wellbeing 2020 report), 93% of boys and 62% of girls are exposed to internet pornography before the age of 18. There is 79% of accidental exposure to internet porn among children and adolescents.

There are different stages of porn addiction:

  1. A) Early exposure: Children aged 12 to 17 largest users of online porn. Most boys have curiosity about the opposite sex and think they can learn more about them on internet porn sites. Unless they can navigate away from this temptation, they are seduced.
  2. B) Addiction: Naïve curiosity turns into physical dependence for this problematic type of sexual arousal. In porn addiction, the habit forming substance is explicit sexual material. To satisfy addiction they rely on the internet, DVDs, and magazines. Porn is needed for arousal and is used on a regular basis. It has been hypothesized that dopamine, a neurochemical, rewards you with pleasurable sensations after watching porn. It makes you feel good and thus these and many other brain chemicals motivate a person who consumes porn to repeat this behavior. Thus, chemical release and pleasurable consequences of behavior leads to addiction and such people become dependent on porn for physical and emotional satisfaction.
  3. C) Desensitization: Just as in any other chemical dependency, the amount of porn the addict previously used is not enough to stimulate these brain chemicals. Dopamine loves novelty. When the reward wears off, dopamine release decreases, therefore pleasure declines, the libido declines, and it may thus cause erectile dysfunction among male consumers. Less gratification leads to desire for greater desire for hardcore porn and thus a vicious cycle reigns.
  4. D) Escalation: Desire for greater pleasure and expanded novelty leads to an urge to explore more pernicious images and urges and fantasies dominate their thoughts and interfere with normal balance of brain chemicals which in turn results in extreme craving.
  5. E) Acting out sexually: Addiction to pornography can lead to an urge to have real world experiences which can lead to risky behaviors like sexual bullying, promiscuous sex, cyber porn, sexual aggression, rape and child molestation. This is especially true as the industry does little to discourage violence against women and their commodification.

Common symptoms of porn addiction: 

  1. Spending large amount of time watching porn
  2. Experiencing cravings to watch porn
  3. Requiring increasing amounts or more explicit porn to gain same level of satisfaction as before
  4. Avoiding social activities to use porn.

Causes of porn addiction:

There can be a number of causes of porn addiction.  Here we are mentioning only few:

  1. Biological factors: The person may have a genetic predisposition to impulsivity, emotion dysregulation, or sensation-seeking behavior. One may have a predisposition to other characteristics that are associated with sexual addiction, like anxiety or depression. As you might expect, higher levels of sex hormones like testosterone or estrogen can also affect libido and hence increase the tendency to consume porn.
  2. If a person is inclined towards impulsive behavior and have high levels of sex-related hormones, he or she may be more likely to engage in excessive or compulsive porn watching. Changes in brain chemistry when a person views porn increases the risk for addiction.
  3. Psychological factors: Early-life/childhood environmental factors, including adverse events like abuse or age inappropriate exposure to sexual content, can contribute to some of the underlying traits involved in porn addiction behaviors and other mental health issues such as Anxiety, Depression, Personality disorders, Poor impulse control, Performance anxiety. A person might watch porn to escape psychological distress, to manage emotional pain, sadness, loneliness and depression. Besides, self esteem issues, past history of sexual abuse, tendency to experiment new things/curiosity to know more about opposite sex, can all lead to porn addiction.
  4. Social factors: Rejection in relationships and social circles can lead to drop in self esteem which might lead to other, less healthy ways of enhancing the self esteem and one of them is porn addiction.
  5. Social isolation: Not only does social isolation increase one’s likelihood of seeking inappropriate ways of being sexually gratified, it also leads to a host of other problems–like depression and physical maladies–that can contribute to porn addictions or unhealthy sex behaviors.
  6. Peer influence: During adolescence peer pressure is a very influential factor. If others around you are doing something, you are more likely to do it, too. Having a friend, or a group of friends, for example, who engage in excessive porn viewing can influence your behavior.

Porn addiction’s Effect on Teenagers Brain:

Porn addiction can lead to various potential emotional, social and psychological disorders. Negative effect is greater on teens as their brains are more susceptible to chemical overload effects that come with addiction. Teenagers’ brain is still in developing stage. It is hard for them to recover from any such addiction than adults. Teenager brain dominated by excitation and activation of pleasure areas and reward and emotional responses can lead to flood of Dopamine which in turn keeps on stimulating and maintaining potentially addictive habits like porn watching.

Warning Signs of Porn addiction among Adolescents:

  1. Decreased interest in and or declining performance in school and extra circular activities.
  2. Poor concentration & Lack of interest in usual day to day activities.
  3. Sexual aggression, incest, age inappropriate relations
  4. Internet addiction
  5. Secrecy, i.e., spending lot of time alone in room with door locked
  6. Sexual bullying
  7. Secrecy around computers and smartphones usage such as hiding or deleting browsing history.
  8. Demonstrating lack of empathy
  9. Watching porn at public places like restaurants or school

Consequences of Porn Addiction 

  1. Sexual dysfunction (e.g., impotence, premature ejaculation)
  2. Brain fog and concentration problems
  3. Increase in high-risk behaviors.
  4. Skewed view of the world.
  5. Decrease in ability to build healthy relationships.
  6. Normalization of sexual violence.
  7. Increase in aggression towards women.
  8. Insomnia/ low motivation
  9. Depression /social anxiety
  10. Negative self perceptions
  11. Porn addiction deform the pleasure centers of brain making it much more difficult to recover
  12. Sexual acting out /changes in sexual orientation
  13. Rewiring reward pathways and sensitization ( alcohol addict and porn addict have same brain changes as per brain scans)
  14. Alterations to reward centers of brain may be responsible for most mental disorders such as PTSD, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, depression.
  15. Skewing what is acceptable sexual behavior
  16. Preoccupation with sexual thoughts throughout the day.
  17. Guilt, shame, confusion.
  18. Ambivalence about stopping, or cycles of stopping/restarting porn watching and thus increase in impulsivity.
  19. Tendency towards other impulsive behaviors.
  20. Depression, anxiety, or other co-occurring psychological disorders.
  21. Increasing need for more aggression or dominance.
  22. Emotional detachment.

Covid-19 and Porn Addiction

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to cause an immense psychosocial strain worldwide. Excessive use of the internet during these psychologically trying times, fueled by physical isolation as a result of lockdowns, has translated into dysfunctional behaviors. A growing body of evidence suggests an unprecedented increase in internet use and consumption of online pornography during the pandemic, and possibly even directly caused by it. Word searches related to pornographic content have increased (among men and women of all ages), owing to the fact that many people are at home with more free time than normal. But this is also a period of extraordinary fear and dread. Porn is a potent and rapid means to self-medicate one’s way out of a relentlessly stressful situation.

While the rest of the world was focused on preventing a global health crisis, the world’s largest pornography corporation (name deliberately not mentioned by the author of this article) was busy causing another pandemic. Traffic to the site was already higher than usual before the COVID-19 pandemic went worldwide, but on March 24, last year, the company provided its premium subscription service to the entire world for free for 30 days. Subscriptions soared to previously unheard-of levels in the days that followed. On March 25, 2020, traffic to the site surged by 22.6 percent in the United States and 21.5 percent in Canada. Europe saw an increase of 24.5 %, and Mexico (41.5 %), Russia (53.2 %), Spain (61 %), and India (95.3 %) were among the countries with the largest increases in traffic. Because of our heightened state of worry and anxiety, a new wave of porn “converts” is emerging, who may or may not be able to break free from this extremely addictive coping method once the free subscription period is over. Indians increasingly went online in pursuit of sexual gratification using porn. The average increase in porn-watching from India was 33% during the pandemic, three times that of the average rise worldwide, which stood at 10.5%, reported Times of India.

Consequently, the promise made by porn industry to help people cope with the stress brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic will end up being something considerably worse and far more difficult to overcome.

A month of internet porn is more than enough time for someone to become addicted to this supernormal stimulus and establishing a porn addiction will have long-term detrimental consequences for marriages and families.

Administrators of one of the porn websites claimed that the figures “clearly demonstrate that people all throughout Europe were delighted to have distractions while quarantined at home”.

However, several members of a Reddit forum for persons suffering from pornography addiction, which has over half a million members, are sharing a different story:

“This corona s*** is killing me. Not the virus but the quarantine. I went to the gym every day and I was very active in my social life but now I have nowhere to go and nothing to do. I relapsed after 24 days,“ said one user.

Additionally, there were many relapse stories: “I’m in Spain, so my university classes are suspended and my part time job is now remote because of coronavirus. I can go out of home but it is not recommended. Now that I’m at home all day, relapsing is much more easy. Today I relapsed 3 times, when in the past normal weeks I used to relapse 1 or 2 times. Need help, this can get much worse if I don’t stop it now.”  Another user had a similar experience, “I already relapsed 9 times this month.”

It’s hardly surprising that not everyone is finding the temptation to view porn a welcome distraction, given that there are scores of research studies associating porn use to poorer mental-health outcomes and another 45 neuro-scientific studies suggesting porn is addictive. Evidently, it appears to be making some people feel even more hopeless than ever.

Guidance for Reducing Problematic Internet Pornography Use, both general and specific:

  1. Set aside time each day for various distress tolerance activities as it will help you “de-stress” and raise your dopamine levels naturally and hence you will feel less urge to seek pleasure through porn watching.
  2. Engage in other vocational activities such as reading, writing, listening to music, and so on.
  3. Regularly take part in social events and maintain relationships with family.
  4. Use apps that provide information on how much time was spent on online activities per week and intentionally restrict daily screen usage for outside work-related activities.
  5. Keep in touch with friends, relatives, and acquaintances when you’re separated from them physically due to lockdown or self quarantine.
  6. Make an abstinence list that includes specific problematic habits related to porn watching and a plan for avoiding or not engaging in those activities.
  7. Use mindfulness exercises to pay attention to behaviors, time spent on various activities, cravings, and other factors.
  8. Actively foster trust among family members, particularly the significant other, as well as exercise good communication and transparency.

Advices for parents and caregivers:

  1. Encourage your child to ask you questions by affirming his or her natural curiosity. Answer children’s queries as per their age so they don’t turn to porn sites for answers.
  2. Assist your child in compiling a list of three trusted persons to whom they can speak or ask questions. Encourage children to confide in a trusted adult if they have any concerns.
  1. Install software for internet accountability on digital devices such as laptop and mobile. Turn on Safe-Search on your browser. Set up strict privacy settings on online apps and games.
  2. Involve your teen or child in the creation of family technology agreements regarding safe gadget usage.
  3. Establish device-free zones and times in your home (for eating, playing, schoolwork, and sleeping).
  4. Talk to your teen about how to report content over the internet that isn’t acceptable/age appropriate.
  5. Tell your children that they can report to you if they encounter something online that makes them feel unhappy, uncomfortable, or terrified, and you will not be angry or penalise them for reporting it to you.
  6. Play online games with your children. Don’t dismiss online gaming as a childish activity. This also allows you to play games with your youngster, but only online. This is an excellent moment to converse with and engage your child about their world and what matters to them. Online apps, programmes, and sites can also provide inspiration and opportunity to play offline games, be creative offline, and exercise together by watching streaming channels and videos indoors, all of which contribute to increased positive bonding time.
  7. Positive support and encouragement to children or adolescents helps to build trusting connections and open lines of communication that may nurture their emotional needs and hence prevent them from seeking other means of pleasure such as porn watching.

  • Wasim Kakroo is a RCI Licensed clinical psychologist and can be reached at [email protected] Aamir Bashir is Counselor at child guidance and wellbeing centre IMHANS.

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